Victoria Rowell can remember when the social workers would come to check on her and her two sisters at their foster home. She was lucky, she now knows -- she had serial social workers rather than serial foster homes, which is far more common.
"It was always a special day," she recalls. "We were proud to show off our home. My foster mother would make me do a little recital, and I hated that. She would play the piano and I would twirl around the room."
Her foster mother, Agatha Wooten Armstead, was a remarkable woman, and was convinced that this little child she was raising on a 60-acre farm in West Lebanon, Maine, had a talent for classical dance. There were no ballet schools in West Lebanon; all she knew were the five ballet positions she'd seen in a copy of McCall's magazine. Rowell practiced them over and over, and ultimately became a student at the American Ballet Theatre (at the time the only black). She segued into acting, but now she plays a dancer -- the manipulative Drucilla Barber -- on "The Young and the Restless," a top-rated soap opera. She also offers her considerable charm to enhance the image of foster care to groups such as the Child Welfare League of America, as she did here this week.
Rowell (whose age is in the actor-friendly range of "between 25 and 30") is one of those people whose start in life could have targeted her for disaster. "No one knows why some children succeed and some don't," she says. Why would this particular child -- given to a foster family when she was 2 weeks old, taken away when she was 2 years old because they were not black and she was of mixed parentage, reunited with two older sisters under a new roof with foster parents old enough to be her grandparents, sent away again at the age of 8 to take advantage of a ballet scholarship -- why would this child not merely survive events that might have traumatized others, but instead thrive. She does not pretend to understand it herself.
"I guess it's something you're born with, a determination," she says. "Plus a combination of good fostering and love... . To know you're loved, it's almost medicinal. That there's always somebody there."
She is all too aware that not enough of the estimated 407,000 children in foster care in the country experience that.
Such a complicated tale, her life story is! No video soap opera could compete.
As a teenager, she lived for a year with a family in Framingham, Mass., Sylvia and Maurice Silverman, whose daughter Robin was her best friend from the Cambridge School of Ballet. Their life offered her a vision of the American Dream as it was supposed to be: a beautiful home, a husband and a wife working together, a rich cultural life -- an inviting contrast to the hard won victories of her life. "That epitomized for me the home I wanted to bring friends to," she says.
As she describes their comforting suburban life, it is without any sense of criticism toward the woman who raised her, who sought out every scholarship, Christmas giveaway, camp for underprivileged kids and part-time job she could to patch together from threadbare resources a life that would give her kids their due. Without the one, Rowell could never have understood the other.
Rowell is blessed with a mega-kilowatt smile, a slim dancer's body and the kind of incandescent complexion that television loves. Her generally sunny, extroverted demeanor retreats, however, when she is asked about the circumstances that led her natural mother to place her six children in the care of the Maine Department of Social Services. "My mother was not a fit parent," she says simply. "It is good that she could recognize that." The protectiveness returns at the mention of Rowell's own marriage -- she is currently separated from her husband, she says. She lives with her 3-year-old daughter (and an au pair from Iceland) in Los Angeles.
Her natural mother corresponded with Armstead and saw her three daughters exactly three times. She persistently refused to allow Armstead to adopt them. Both women -- the biological mother and the one who had done her job -- died eight years ago within months of each other. Rowell went to her natural mother's funeral and was greeted cordially by the white family that knew of her but had never met her. Rowell never knew her father; Armstead's husband, Robert, died when she was 3 1/2.
It is clear that one thing she learned from Agatha Armstead is to go forward with determination. She has started, for example, a ballet scholarship program for foster children in New England, named rather grandly the Rowell Foster Children's Fine Arts Scholarship Fund, which is administered through the Portland School of Ballet in Maine. In its service she has scarfed up mugs from "The Tonight Show," a Johnny Carson autograph, a signed T-shirt from Muhammad Ali -- all for a celebrity auction fund-raiser. She also went on "Family Feud" and won $1,000 for the fund. "I have no shame," she says.
The Child Welfare League of America, which brought Rowell here for its annual conference to give out awards and speak at a rally on Capitol Hill Thursday, is pushing for the passage of legislation that would send between $3 billion and $6 billion to states over the next five years to pay for "family preservation" programs, such as crisis intervention, foster parent respites and treatment for children exposed to drugs. There is apparently no end in sight to the need for foster care, as the ravages of drugs, alcohol, homelessness and child abuse force children into the not-so-waiting arms of governments.
"Foster care gets such a bad rap," says Rowell. "I guess I just want people to know that there can be good results."